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Alok Vaid-Menon: ‘When I’m Feeling Despair, I Turn Towards Artists’

Non-binary trans Indian-American performance artist, scholar, and writer Alok Vaid-Menon is speaking out on the violence against trans artists, especially filmmakers.

Vaid-Menon, who uses “we” as a pronoun and is the subject of short documentary film “Alok” that debuted at 2024 Sundance, said at IndieWire’s annual chili party that the new anti-trans Utah bill is yet another example of American politics trying to “punish trans people for having the audacity to be beautiful in a world that would rather us be banal.”

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The House Bill 257 aims to prohibit people from using gender-designated facilities that differ from their sex assigned at birth in government buildings, correctional facilities, and domestic violence shelters unless they have undergone a transition-related surgery and legally amended the sex on their birth certificate, as reported by The Hill. If passed, Utah would be the third state to have explicit restrictions on transgender bathroom use in buildings other than schools, following Florida and North Dakota.

“I’ve been feeling a lot of despair with the state of the world right now,” Vaid-Menon said. “A few days ago, the Utah House just approved a bill that would criminalize trans people like me in the state of Utah for using the facilities of our choices. It’s the worst anti-trans bill ever introduced in the U.S. that’s trying to criminalize us out of existence. This is part of a large, wide-sweeping attempt to punish trans people for having the audacity to be beautiful in a world that would rather us be banal.”

Vaid-Menon said of film “Alok,” directed by Alexandra Hedison and executive produced by Jodie Foster, that the short is an “invitation to understand the struggle for trans liberation is actually a struggle for all people to create a world where we’re all more capable of expressing ourselves, one that values creativity over conformity.”

The artist added, “And I think that’s the spirit of independent cinema is rather than feeling and fitting ourselves into a preset template or equation, we color outside the lines because they don’t exist. We do. So in that way, being trans is an ultimate act of independent cinema. It’s about finding a way to make your own lighting in an industry that often shadow bans us. It’s about finding a way to get back up again in a country that continues to dispossess us. So when I’m feeling despair, I turn towards artists.”

Vaid-Menon continued, “What art teaches us is that beauty will forever be more powerful than violence, and that beauty is anti-violence. And what the stakes are ahead of us is not just to criticize what’s wrong, but to create something that is so compelling, so irresistible, so tantalizing, so succulent that it has the potential to redefine the world, not just reflect it. So I just wanted to say, please give yourself permission to be a little bit more beautiful. Please give yourself permission to make art that reminds people of the urgency of beauty. I believe beauty is a gravitational force that roots us back in everything that matters.”

During the IndieWire Studio at Sundance, presented by Dropbox, Vaid-Menon previously addressed the rise of transphobia amid the current political landscape, and revealed how we move forward into an era of compassion.

“I think when people see trans people, they’re threatened because we’re introducing a language or an authenticity that holds a mirror where they have to ask themselves, ‘Who would I be outside of being told what I should be?'” Vaid-Menon explained. “So the lie doesn’t often have to be conscious: It’s a sense of self-betrayal of having to mold yourself into the image of what other people want instead of yourself. I think what challenges people about transness is the clarity of this decision in saying you get to change your mind and you get to give birth to yourself.”

Vaid-Menon continued, “I had my retribution era. I had my sense of being angry and wanting to clap back. But then I realized that actually when I was holding onto that bitterness and that resentment, it had a corrosive quality to my own life. I was unable to show up and experience joy and delight because I was so frustrated by other people. So I freed myself from that burden. It also helped me see the world for what it is, kind of revealed the matrix that most peoples’ prejudices have nothing to do with me, it has to deal with themselves.”

See the full list of IndieWire Studio at Sundance, presented by Dropbox, lineup here.

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